A MIDNIGHT ATTACK
It was late in the evening at San Diego, in the autumn of the year 1832; there was no moon, but the stars shone so brightly in the clear, dry atmosphere that it was easy to distinguish objects at some little distance. A young fellow, in the dress of a sailor, was making his way through the narrow streets that bordered the port, when he heard a sudden shout, followed by fierce exclamations and Mexican oaths. Without pausing to consider whether it was prudent to interfere, he grasped tightly a cudgel he had that day cut, and ran to the spot where it was evident that a conflict was going on. It was but some forty yards away, and as he approached he made out four figures who were dodging round a doorway and were evidently attacking someone standing there. The inequality of the combat was sufficient to appeal to the sailor’s sympathies. The sand that lay thick in the street had deadened his footsteps, and his presence was unmarked till his stick descended with a sharp crack on the up-lifted wrist of one of the assailants, eliciting a yell of pain, while the knife the man held flew across the street.
One of the man’s companions turned upon the new-comer, but the sailor’s arm was already raised, and the cudgel lighted with such force on the man’s head that he fell stunned to the ground. This unexpected assault caused the other two fellows to pause and look around, and in an instant the defender of the doorway bounded forward and buried his knife in one of their bodies, while the other at once fled, followed by the man whose wrist had been broken by the sailor’s first blow.
“Carambo, señor!” the Mexican said. “You have rendered me a service indeed, and I tender you a thousand thanks. I could not have held out much longer, for I had been more than once wounded before you arrived.”
“You are heartily welcome, señor. It was but a slight business—two blows with my stick and the matter was done.”
“You are not a countryman of mine, señor,” the other said, for the sailor spoke with a strong accent; “you are a stranger, and, as I can see now, a sailor.”
“That is so. I am an American.”
“Is that so?” the other said, speaking this time in English. “As you see, I know about as much of your tongue as you do of mine. I thought you must be a stranger even before I observed your dress, for street frays are not uncommon in this town, whereas in other ports there are scores of men ready for any villany, and few of my people would care to interfere in a fray in which they have no interest. But do not let us stay here. It is best to get out of this quarter.”
“Shall we do anything with these fellows? The one I hit can only be stunned, and I should think we ought to give him in charge to the watch.”
The other laughed. “You might wait some time before we found them, and, besides, it would give us a deal of trouble. No; leave them where they lie. The one I struck at least will never get up again. Now, señor, may I ask the name of my preserver? Mine is Juan Sarasta.”
“Mine is William Harland,” the sailor replied.
“We are friends for life, Señor Harland,” the Mexican said, as he held out his hand and gripped that of the sailor warmly. “Where are you staying?”
“I am staying nowhere at present,” the sailor laughed. “I deserted from my ship three days ago, bought a supply of food, and have been some miles up the country. I knew that the vessel was to sail to-day, and I came back again and watched her go out just before sunset, and have been sitting on a barrel down at the wharf, wondering what I was going to do, and whether, after all, it would not have been wiser of me to have put up with that brute of a captain until we got down to Valparaiso.”
“We will talk all that matter over later,” the Mexican said. “I am staying with some friends, who will, I am sure, make you welcome when I tell them that you saved my life.”
“I thank you very much,” the sailor said, “but no doubt I shall be able to find some little inn where I can obtain a night’s lodging.”
“Such a thing is not to be thought of, Señor Harland, and I shall feel very much hurt if you do not accept my offer.”
They were now in a wider street, and, passing a wine-shop from which the light streamed out, Harland saw that the Mexican was a young fellow but two or three years older than himself, and his dress showed him to belong to the upper class. The Mexican’s glance had been as quick as his own, for he said, “Why, you are younger than I am!”
“I am just eighteen.”
“And I twenty. Were you an officer on your ship?”
“No. My father is one of the leading citizens of Boston; he absolutely refused to allow me to follow the sea as a profession, although he is a large ship-owner himself; however, my mind was made up, and as I could not go as an officer, I came as a sailor. This is not my first voyage, for two years ago he let me sail in one of his ships as an apprentice, making sure that it would have the effect of disgusting me with the sea. However, the experiment failed, and to his anger I returned even fonder of it than when I started. He wanted me to go into his office, but I positively refused, and we had a serious quarrel, at the end of which I went down to the river and shipped before the mast. I know now that I have behaved like a fool. The captain was a brute of the worst sort, and the first mate was worse, and between them they made the ship unbearable. I stood it as long as I could, but three days before we got to this port one of the young apprentices, whom they had pretty nearly killed, jumped overboard, and then I made up my mind that as soon as we landed I would bolt and take my chance of getting a berth on board some other ship.”
“But you speak Spanish very fairly, señor.”
“Well, the last ship I was in traded along the western coast, putting in at every little port, so I picked up a good deal of the language, for we were out here nearly six months. The ship I have just left did the same, so I have had nearly a year on this coast, and having learned Latin at school, of course it helped me very much. And you, señor, how do you come to speak English?”
“I have been down for the past six months in Valparaiso, staying with a relation who has a house there, and my greatest friends there were some young Englishmen of my own age, sons of a merchant. My father had spoken of my paying a visit to your States some day, and therefore I was glad of the opportunity of learning the language. This, señor, is the house of my friends.”
As Harland saw that his companion would take no denial, he followed him into the house. The young Mexican led the way to a pretty room with windows to the ground, opening on to a garden.
“You are late, Señor Juan,” a gentleman said, rising from his seat; but before the young man could reply, a girl of fifteen or sixteen years old cried out: “Madre Maria, he is wounded!”
“It is nothing serious, and I had almost forgotten it till just now it began to smart. I have two, or, I think, three stabs on my left arm; they are not very deep, as I twisted my cloak round it when I was attacked. But it would have been a very serious business had it not been for this gentleman, whom I wish to introduce to you, Don Guzman, as the saviour of my life. He is an American gentleman, the son of a wealthy ship-owner of Boston, but, owing to some slight disagreement with his father, he has worked his way out here as a sailor. I ventured to promise that you would extend your hospitality to him.”
“My house is at your service, señor,” the Mexican said courteously. “One who has rendered so great a service to my friend Don Juan Sarasta, is my friend also. Christina, ring the bell and tell the servants to bring hot water and clothes, and then do you go to your room while we attend to Don Juan’s injuries.”
The wounds proved to be by no means serious; they were all on the forearm, and, having to pierce through six or seven inches of cloth, had not penetrated very far. They had, however, bled freely, and although the young man laughed at them as mere scratches, he looked pale from the loss of blood.
“A few bottles of good wine, and I shall be all right again.”
“I must apologize for not having asked you before,” Señor Guzman said to Harland, when the wounds were bandaged, “but have you supped?”
“Yes, thank you, señor. I bought some food as I came through the town, and ate it as I was waiting at the port.”
“Have you any luggage that I can send for?”
“I have a kit-bag, which I will fetch myself in the morning. It is out on the plain. I did not care to bring it from the town until I knew that the vessel I came in had sailed.”
“I can lend you some things for the night,” Juan said. “You are a little taller than I am, but they will be near enough.”
Some wine and biscuits were now brought in, and some excellent cigars produced.
“Were they thieves that attacked you, think you, Don Juan?” his host asked, after the latter had given a detailed account of his adventure.
“I cannot say, but I own I have an idea it was my life that they wanted rather than my valuables. I had a fancy that a man was following me, and I went to see the man I had spoken to about the mules. Coming back I heard a whistle behind me, and twenty yards farther three men sprang out, and one ran up from behind, so that I don’t think it was a chance encounter.”
“Do you suspect anyone?”
The young Mexican hesitated a moment before he answered. “No, señor; I have no quarrel with anyone.”
“I do not see how, indeed, you could have an enemy,” Don Guzman said, “seeing that you have been here only for a fortnight; still, it is curious. However, I have no doubt there are plenty of fellows in the town who would put a knife between any man’s shoulders if they thought he was likely to have a few dollars in his pocket. Your watch-chain may have attracted the eye of one of these fellows, and he may have thought it, with the watch attached to it, well worth the trouble of getting, and would have considered it an easy matter, with three comrades, to make short work of you, though I own that when you showed fight so determinedly I wonder they did not make off, for, as a rule, these fellows are rank cowards.”
Will Harland observed that when the don asked if Juan had any suspicions as to the author of the attempt, Donna Christina, who had returned to the room when his wounds were dressed, glanced towards him, as if anxious to hear his answer. Putting that and the young Mexican’s momentary hesitation together, he at once suspected that both he and the girl had a strong idea as to who was at the bottom of this attempt. The subject was not further alluded to, the conversation turning upon the United States, concerning which the Mexican asked Harland many questions.
“It is a pity so great a distance divides us from them,” he said. “It is more effectual than any ocean, and yet perhaps if we were nearer neighbours your people would disturb our quiet life here. They are restless, and forever pushing forward, while we abhor changes, and live as our fathers did three hundred years ago. You see, the mountains act as a barrier to us, and we have never even tried to extend the territory we occupy beyond the strip of land between the coast and the mountains, and, indeed, that is ample for us. Our population has decreased rather than increased since Mexico declared its independence in 1821, and took what I have always considered the ill-advised step of expelling all the Spanish residents about six years ago.
“Not that we in this province took any very active part in the civil wars that for ten years raged in Central Mexico; but although the Spanish authorities were bad masters, it must be granted that, while they were here, there was more trade and commerce than there has since been, and that the advantages all expected to secure from the revolution have by no means been obtained. It is curious that the same has been the case in the other countries that gained their independence. In Central America there are constant troubles, in Peru things have gone backward rather than forward, and Chile alone shows signs of enterprise and advancement. However, these things do not concern us greatly; we live by the land and not by trade; we have all we want, or can desire, and subsist, like the patriarchs of old, on our flocks and herds.
“Don Juan’s father, a man of vigour and courage, has shown more enterprise than any of us, for before the beginning of the troubles he moved far up a valley running into the heart of the mountains, and established himself there. He had large flocks and herds, but his land was insufficient to support them, and, in spite of the warnings of all his friends, he determined to move. So far he has proved himself a wise man. He began by making a sort of treaty with the Indians of that part, by which he agreed to give them a considerable amount of blankets and other goods if they would bind themselves not to interfere with him in any way. These people have generally proved themselves faithless in such matters, but this has been an exception to the rule, and I believe that he has not lost a single head of cattle since he went out there, and he is now undoubtedly one of the richest men on this coast. The fact that he should send his son on to Chile to enlarge his mind and prepare him for a trip to the United States, and even to Europe, shows the energy of the man, and how far removed his ideas are from those of the hacienderos in general. I can assure you that Juan’s departure caused quite a sensation in this part of the province.”
“Does your father often come down here himself, Don Juan?”
“He generally comes down once a year to arrange for the disposal of the increase of his cattle—that is to say, of the tallow and hides; as to the meat, it is practically of no value. Of course the bullocks are killed on the estate; the daily consumption is large, for he has upwards of fifty peons and vaqueros, but this is a comparatively small item, for he generally kills from eighteen thousand to twenty thousand animals; the carcasses are boiled down for the fat, and that and the hides are packed on great rafts and sent down to the coast. His place is only a few miles from the Colorado River. When he comes down here, he takes up a ship, which he sends round to Loreto, and thence up to the mouth of the Colorado.”
“How far is this place from here?”
“About two hundred miles.”
“I should have thought it would have been better to have them here.”
“No, there is a range of hills about half-way between his place and the coast, across which it would be difficult to get them. Another thing is, that there is scarce any food by the way; rain seldom falls here, and although the land is very rich when irrigated, it affords but a scanty growth in its wild state. A herd of twenty thousand bullocks could scarcely exist on the road, and even if they got here, they would have lost so much fat that they would scarce pay for boiling down.”
They sat smoking in the veranda until nearly midnight, and Don Guzman then conducted the young sailor to the chamber that had been prepared for him.
Categories: English Literature